by Tan Wah Piow
2nd February 2018 marks the 55th anniversary of Operation Coldstore in Singapore.
In the early hours of 2nd February 1963, Singapore’s Internal Security Council (ISC) ordered the arrests without trial of 107 political leaders from leftwing opposition parties, civil society leaders, trade unionists, and students. That ‘security’ action paved the way for late Lee Kuan Yew’s consolidation of his power as the People’s Action Party was otherwise facing a formidable challenge from the left lead by the Barisan Socialist party.
Although the leftwing forces were decimated by Operation Coldstore, they were able to win a respectable 13 out of the 51 seats during the 22 September 1963 General Elections. This was despite the allegations that the party, and those detained were pro-communist.
February 2nd 1963 marked a watershed point in Singapore politics as within five years, Singapore became a one-party state, and essentially remains so to this day.
As pointed out in the book “The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore”, Lee Kuan Yew tried to deny responsibility for the Operation Coldstore arrests, shifting the blame to the Prime Minister of Malaya, and the British, who together with Singapore, were members of the ISC. (This was the Constitutional arrangement in 1959 when Singapore was granted internal self-government.)
Much has been written in recent years, with materials from the British Archives, exposing Lee Kuan Yew as a duplicitous political operator. Politically, he did not want to be seen as being involved in the suppression of the left, and for the imprisonment without trial of the iconic and charismatic Lim Chin Siong who enjoyed substantial public support. Lee was afraid of losing electoral support. Hence in a report in the Straits Times published on the 4.2.1963, Lee Kuan Yew was quoted as saying “If it were an action by the Singapore government we would never have contemplated it.” (Straits Times 4.2.1963).
Despite all the official Singaporean propaganda about Operation Coldstore, the British archives show that Lim Chin Siong, and his leftwing colleagues were at worst ideological Communists. The archives confirm that the left in Singapore were not advocating violence, and were committed to pursuing their political goals through constitutional parliamentary means. The archives also confirm that there was no evidence that they were acting on instructions from Moscow, or Beijing.
Although the Malaysian PM Tunku, and the British had their respective interests in curbing the left in Singapore, the fingerprints of Lee Kuan Yew were all over the place in Operation Coldstore. The motivation of Lee Kuan Yew in 1963 was not very different from remarks made about him in 1961 by British diplomats:
“Lee is probably very much attracted to the idea of destroying his political opponents. It should be remembered that there is behind all this a very personal aspect… he claims he wishes to put back in detention the very people who were released at his insistence – people who are intimate acquaintances, who have served in his government, and with whom there is a strong sense of political rivalry which transcends ideological differences.” * [Outward telegram from the UK Commonwealth Relations Office to Department of External Affairs, Canberra, 4.8.1961. Noted in The 1963 Operation Coldstore In Singapore,pg 29]
The “very personal aspect”, as noted in the Telegram, unfortunately went beyond the political needs of the post-1968 period. Even if Lee Kuan Yew’s admirers applaud his actions against the left in 1963 as a necessary Machiavelian deed, it would be difficult for them to condone the detentions of these political prisoners (some for as long as two and three decades) when the left was no longer a threat to him.
By 1968, Lee Kuan Yew had already established his one-party state, with him at the helm. He had effectively colonised the institutions of the state to serve his personal political agenda, destroyed any effective opposition, controlled the media. The PAP, under his cadre-system, became the mere political vehicle for providing him with a veneer of democracy.
The 1963 Operation Coldstore had served Lee Kuan Yew’s existential political needs at that specific point in history. Once the political threats were removed, the continued detentions of his opponents beyond 1968 were gratuitous, and unconstitutional. For that reason, as a politician, Lee Kuan Yew was Machiavelian. As a person, he was a sadistic political psychopath for he had gratuitously and knowingly destroyed many lives. One such victim was the legendary Lim Chin Siong.